Democracy and Communications Technology

20 March 2010


The BBC has been running a series of stories called Superpower about how the internet has changed quotidian life. One of these stories is “US calls for ‘YouTube’ of government data.”

Vivek Kundra, who is in charge of the website, is quoted in the article as saying:

“Consider how much data the government has… By democratising we put information in the hands of citizens so that they can make better decisions and fundamentally change the way we deliver services… I would argue that in the same way websites may have been a novel concept in the early days of the internet, what we are seeing today is the emergence of government as a platform, and now you’ll see innovation happen on top of that… New businesses will be created that we cannot imagine today. New services will be deployed and the public will have greater transparency to participate in the democratic institutions in ways that they could have never imagined before.”

These are interesting claims, and merit closer attention. We know from historical experience how communications technology can make a decisive difference in the way that historical developments unfold. For example, the invention of movable type and the printing press so that printing was an emerging industry at the time when the Protestant Reformation turned an episode that might have been contained into something that divided Europe and precipitated the Thirty Years War.

Like any counterfactual conditional (as I recently discussed in Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution), the suggestion that the printing press contributed materially to the spread of the Protestant Reformation could be countered with equally plausible arguments that European society at that time was ripe for change. …

Unless we can formulate some rigorous way of thinking about counterfactual conditionals, we remain in the realm of speculation. But not all speculation is equal. Some speculation is relatively well informed while other speculation is relatively ill informed. So although we lack a rigorous method for thought experiments that would allow us to entertain counterfactual conditionals with the same degree of intellectual clarity that we can bring to scientific experiments, we can’t dismiss instances of insight that cast considerable light both on what might have been and what might yet be.

Certainly no reasonable person would question the role of radio and television in shaping the twentieth century and even in creating mass man. We have learned to our sorrow the way in which a story is covered in the mass media can change the story itself and even become part of the story. The twentieth century was, in a sense, very much the century of the mass media, and even the century of television. Its impact should not be underestimated.

Mass media in their original forms of the pamphlet in the early modern period, the newspaper in the nineteenth century, and radio and television in the twentieth century, were one-way conduits for the dispersion of ideas and opinions. With the emergence of the internet at the end of the twentieth century, just in time to be a growth industry at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we now have a mass media that is a two-way conduit of ideas and opinions. Of course, the medium is imperfect and still dominated by those who can best afford to broadcast their message, but it has great potential to contribute to the unfolding of history no less than television.

Vivek Kundra has correctly identified some of the possibilities of the internet. It is a profoundly democratizing technology, and in a society in which almost everyone has access to the internet (which in many societies is not yet the case, which has been the occasion for stories on the “digital divide”), clever and insightful individuals will emerge who will do unexpected things with the resources that the internet places in their hands.

It could even be said — though this is more of a leap — that the internet is not merely a democratizing technology, but that it is the democratizing technology par excellence, and that in fact democracy will be given new life, new vigor, new opportunities, and new possibilities. That is to say, the internet is the technology for which democracy has been waiting since it emerged in its modern form in 1776. With this technology, democracy once again has a bright future, may indeed once again become an ideology of our time that will change the fates of individuals and states alike.

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